Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stephen King - The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered this when she was nine years old. At ten o’ clock on a morning in early June she was sitting in the back seat of her mother’s Dodge Caravan, wearing her blue Red Sox batting practice jersey (the one with 36 GORDON on the back) and playing with Mona, her doll. At ten thirty she was lost in the woods. By eleven she was trying not to be terrified, trying not to let herself think, This is serious, this is very serious.Trying not to think that sometimes when people got lost in the woods they got seriously hurt.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a near perfect book for the first two thirds of its narration. In the first pages, Trisha walks away from the path while on a family hike in the Adirondacks. The story follows over Trisha’s shoulder as she struggles to survive and find her way back. Every word in these scenes bleeds tension, and the book is impossible to put down.

After a time, we reach the middle section. Trisha’s story to survive is no longer quite as urgent – it’s become clear that she’s not going to be rescued in the next five pages, but she’s not going to be fed to a bear in them, either – but this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Building a narrative based on monotony’s always a dangerous move, for rather obvious reasons, but King successfully walks a fine line and manages to convey the crushing, deadly tedium of a world where you’re the only thing who’s had a thought more complex than “grrr” today, without the text becoming an exercise in willpower.

It’s in these sections where we see the first hints of the supernatural, but, whatever the monster that’s pursuing Trisha is, it stays well out of the limelight here. If the cover didn’t say Stephen King in such big letters, you might even think the beasty was just a reflection of Trisha’s terror and loneliness, the need for there to be some other agency at work in such a lawless place, even a malicious force being better than simple bogs and trees and flies.

During these pages the focus of the story is still very much Girl in the Woods, not Demons Killing Stuff. Now that the sheer terror of the earlier sections have subsided, King takes the opportunity to show segments of beauty as well as plight, further drawing the reader into Trisha’s journey through the wilderness. King cuts back on the flashbacks as the story progresses, while simultaneously deepening Trisha’s character considerably.

And then we get to the ending, and – who’s surprised? – it all goes to hell. At the end of a chapter two-thirds of the way through the book, I put the book down after reading for the past hour, absolutely enthralled. I have no idea where he can possibly go from here, I thought to myself. Well, it turns out that Stephen King didn’t know where he should go either. In a few dozen pages literally all tension bleeds out of the narrative. Maybe it’s yet another horrible obstacle, yet more hundreds of miles of forests, that breaks it, piling on one too many catastrophes for the result to still hold together. Or maybe it’s just that something like this couldn’t be kept up forever. I don’t know, but while I read the first two-thirds of the book in two sittings, this part took me four or five to muscle through.

In inverse proportion with the amount of tension there is in the narrative, you have the supernatural presence. When the Lost in the Woods episode begins to lose its luster, King brings the bogeyman to the fore – and everything falls totally flat. Not for the first time, a monster is what takes the sails out of King’s horror, beginning with the nothing-short-of-painful scene where Trisha talks to the representatives of the three gods, the intangible sub-audible, the loving God of Tom Gordon, and the evil-horror-terror God of the Lost.

In addition to the growing demonic presence, as The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon progresses, the endless procession of sayings – ranging from those obnoxious faux-adages, to TV jingles – only intensifies. King’s love of euphemisms is pretty well established by now, stretching back to his earliest works (remember the capitalized DIVORCE, in The Shining, for instance?). It’s not a bad thing in and of itself and is even quite endearing, at times. The problems come to the fore when clichés replace description, and truisms replace thought. As far as I can tell, Pepsi is the suburban equivalent of a fortune cookie generator, an utterly blank slate, save for an endless parade of prepackaged sayings. Acknowledging that something is hollow and cliché doesn’t make it meaningful again, and ironic winks grow tiresome when repeated ad nauseam.

I haven’t even mentioned the actual climax yet. [The rest of this paragraph has SPOILERS; if you want to be totally chaste entering the book, skip to the line break.] You know when you’re reading a book, you stop at the one quarter-or-so mark and laugh to yourself about how poorly the author could end it? The problem with reading a newer Stephen King book is that you’ll have a prediction…and then it’ll actually come true. For instance, what’s the worst way that a book about a girl being lost in the woods could end? Her being randomly found through no effort of her own, of course. To make matters worse, it comes right after what could’ve been a great ending. It was horribly cheesy, of course, but it worked. It was the kind of ending that tugs your heart strings so hard you just can’t complain. But no, cheesy-but-excellent wouldn’t be climactic enough, so let’s bring in the gun toting hunter. Why the hell not? Ugh.

The first two thirds of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon are among the best pages that Stephen King has ever written. As I was reading them, I was mentally listing The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon alongside great works like The Shining and It. And then, I read the ending and was forced to watch as everything I loved about the book was ravished and discarded. I don’t know whether I should recommend this book or not. It’s not the worst thing that King’s written, Everything’s Eventual takes that dubious honor with ease, but it disappointed me more than anything else he’s done. In the end, I think my recommendation goes like this…

Wait a minute. Haven’t I said all this before? Right here, in fact?? You know, I don’t know if I can even blame Stephen King anymore. The formula for his later books is pretty damn blatant by now: excellent characterization and pacing, followed by lackluster horror and a god awful ending. I should know what I’m getting into by now, right? By this point, writing that a late era King novel disappointed me makes me feel like I’m going to a restaurant I’ve always hated, every single night, and complaining that the same dish I’ve always despised hasn’t changed. Well, duh. I think it’s time to stop coming back. Next time I’m in the mood for King, I think I’ll reread Salem’s Lot.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, so Stephen King's Bane strikes again? :D

    I agree that King - and as you said, later King - has a major issue with endings. I'm wondering if it's an artifact of his writing style, where he doesn't really structure anything beforehand in terms of beginning and end-points.

    I ought to go re-read Salem's Lot myself. For that matter, some good 1970s and 1980s King would be good stuff right now.